Washington's 19Th-Century Man -- Jack Metcalf's Days In Congress Are Numbered, Along With The Spirit Of An Older Northwest
THE TIDE IS GURGLING out in Saratoga Passage as Congressman Jack Metcalf stands in the shadow of the wood lodge he painstakingly built, log by log, on the shore of Whidbey Island.
He looks like a woodsman, a helmet of white hair matching the brightness of Mount Baker across the water. But out of his mouth spills the language of the Beltway: the budget process, the Social Security deficit, transportation-funding formulas.
As he gives an insider's critique of why Congress can't pass a budget, a rabbit hops hesitantly out of the woods.
In mid-sentence, Metcalf stops. A news reporter is there, and guests are up at the lodge, but it doesn't seem to occur to him that the visitors are likely to think of rabbits as cute pets.
Nope, Jack Metcalf, fit and ramrod straight at age 71, frowns and runs inside for his rifle. When he can't find the gun, he grabs a slingshot. The guarded decorum of a 40-year politician is gone.
"I've gotten a few with the slingshot," he calls, bolting back out of the house. "I'm still a good shot, even at my age."
The oblivious rabbit has meandered out of sight. Metcalf begins searching for it, then stops, realizing: He's a member of one of the most august groups in the world, the U.S. House of Representatives, and he is trying to kill a rabbit in front of a reporter.
He turns and shrugs.
"They're really a problem, eating in the garden," he says apologetically. "I guess I shouldn't go after them when people are
WHEN METCALF retires from Congress next year, it will mark more than the close of a long, quirky career. It will be the end of an era in Northwest politics. Unlike any politician of his time, Metcalf, a Republican, is a vestige of a certain place the Northwest used to be.
He is the only top local politician in office who hunted for his food - starting at age 7, when his father gave him a .22 rifle and told him to shoot rabbits for stew.
He's the only one who cut down the trees to build his own house.
A former commercial fisherman, he's damn near the only major elected official left in the West who worked a job requiring him to lift things with his hands.
At a time when the state and national governments increasingly are filled with lawyers and consultants, Metcalf walks the marble halls of Congress as if he just got off the stagecoach.
He doesn't know how to use a computer. His congressional briefcase is like a Boy Scout pack, filled with tools and lengths of cord for emergency repair jobs.
He has little use for modern political concepts such as "spin control." When asked about guns, for instance, he says matter-of-factly that he sleeps with a loaded revolver under his pillow.
His resume reads like a Northwest pioneer story. His first job was shooting raccoons and selling the pelts to Seattle fur shops for $3. He supported himself and his new wife, Norma, in the late 1940s by picking salal and huckleberries. He taught high-school civics and math for 30 years. He restarted his dad's fishing business in 1954 and ran it for 15 years, launching a hand-made wooden skiff off Camano Island on evenings and weekends for black cod, perch or flounder to sell at Pier 66 in Seattle.
He exudes an aura of self-made man and an older Northwest, where trees were a crop called wood and salmon was not a social cause but something to eat.
In politics, which Metcalf entered in 1958 by losing a campaign for a state House seat, he has been an enduring icon of how rugged individualism never goes out of style.
"He and his horse could do a parade route, and Jack would be erect and motionless in his saddle, never a superfluous pound on his body. People would see him pass by and they'd say, `Now that guy is how the West was won,' " remembered Wally Funk, 77, the former publisher of the Whidbey News-Times, the twice-weekly paper for the island.
"He is symbolic of another time. He hasn't changed, and his political philosophy has not changed, not one tiny bit, even with all the transformations in our society.
"He's definitely a 19th-century man as we head into the 21st century."
AFTER SEN. WARREN Magnuson refused to debate him - wouldn't even acknowledge his existence - and then routed him in a Senate election landslide for the second time in 1974, Jack Metcalf was asked whether he planned to run for public office again.
He was living in a trailer at the time. He was on leave from his teaching job and had no appreciable income. Politics had not been kind. He was an outgoing state senator, but in his 16-year political career he'd lost four of eight elections, an extremely high ratio.
"I can't continue to do this," Metcalf said then. "I've got no stocks, no bonds, no property except my dad's lots. A guy 46 years old owes more to his family."
So he did what any old-school Northwesterner having a midlife crisis would do: He went into the woods and began cutting down trees. With the help of his then 77-year-old father, John Metcalf, he returned to the family land on Whidbey Island to build a lodge designed by his wife.
He stripped the logs, rented a small truck crane and placed all the logs and rafters himself. It was backbreaking work. He ran out of money repeatedly, and used the island as a makeshift hardware store. Beach boulders were used to make a stone fireplace. Driftwood became handles for doors. A 4-foot-diameter section of old-growth timber, still bearing the stamped initials of the company that felled the tree, became the breakfast table.
The lodge, today a three-story inn called the Log Castle Bed and Breakfast, is a monument to creative scrounging. When Metcalf needed curved logs to frame a convex wall at the front of the lodge, he searched for trees growing out of embankments because they had a natural curve to the trunk.
"Building that place took six years and all the money and energy I had," Metcalf says today. "It nearly killed me. But I think in a way it also rejuvenated me."
In the era of instant wealth, this notion of living off the land seems quaint, if not archaic. Politicians frequently speechify about stories like this, about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but few seem to actually do it anymore.
This is what makes Metcalf different from most of the rest of Congress, especially among Republicans. He knows personally what it's like to scrape. The house he was raised in, a hut on the same Whidbey Island beach, cost $10 in 1928. During the Depression, he remembers his dad holding up a nickel and declaring it was all he had left.
Adulthood was better, but hardly flush. Before 1995, when he began drawing his $136,000 congressional salary, the most money he had ever made in a year was $38,000. That was in 1981, his last year as a teacher at Cascade High School in Everett.
He once estimated his total earnings in 15 years of on-again, off-again commercial fishing. It came out to less than $1 an hour.
Metcalf is by no means poor today. After building the lodge he went on to serve 12 more years in the state Senate, and then, in 1994, was sent to Congress by the voters of northwestern Washington's 2nd Congressional District. If sold today, his bed-and-breakfast and his share of the quarter-mile of waterfront property his dad bought for $5,000 in 1928 would fetch more than $1 million.
But as one of the most conservative members of the party of big business, Metcalf repeatedly has surprised fellow Republicans by siding with the little guy - such as when he broke ranks from the GOP to support a raise in the national minimum wage.
In 1973, Metcalf introduced a bill that is emblematic of his entire political career. He proposed changing the state's opening day for deer and elk hunting season to Saturday from Monday, "so the average guy has the same chance to get an elk as those who are wealthy enough to hunt during the week."
Big deal, you say? To working stiffs who dreamed of bagging an elk, Metcalf was a hero for life.
"A lot of people in politics today don't understand how important these little things are," Metcalf says.
Of course, the little things won't get you much ink in the book of Northwest legislative history. His political nemesis, the legendary Magnuson, wrote the Civil Rights Act, created the National Institutes of Health and all but built the system of hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
That's heady stuff. Certainly it doesn't compare, but it's worth noting here that once again this fall, hunters will take to the woods for opening day of deer and elk hunting season on a Saturday.
METCALF IS PART of another longstanding Northwest tradition that many civic leaders would just as soon sweep under the rug - eccentric fringe politics.
From the moment he entered office, Metcalf has pursued lonely, quixotic crusades. In the 1960s, he was one of the first in the nation to propose term limits for elected officials. He has spent nearly four decades arguing that U.S. paper dollars and the Federal Reserve bank that issues them are unconstitutional. He insisted the Legislature pay him in coins, which are described in the Constitution; in 1981, the state treasurer obliged, giving him 383 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins to cover an expense check.
A self-described "conservative loose cannon," Metcalf sometimes is so far right he meets the far left on the other side. Recently, to oppose the Makah Indian tribe's gray whale hunt, he joined forces with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international environmental group that has rammed and sunk whaling ships.
"I know it seems inconsistent because I'm a hunter, but I guess I feel there are some animals that shouldn't be hunted," he said.
This maverick spirit was instilled in Metcalf by his father, who was influenced by one of the signature events of radicalism in local history.
A log-boom operator at a Marysville shingle mill and later a commercial fisherman, John Metcalf was, like many turn-of-the-century Northwesterners, disillusioned with working extremely long hours for low pay and became attracted to the reform messages of socialism.
When John was 19, in 1916, shingle weavers went on strike in Everett. Businessmen and the local sheriff banned public speech-making and then assembled a militia to enforce the new rules. An aggressive union, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, arrived to challenge the gag rule and shooting broke out, leaving seven dead in what came to be called the Everett Massacre.
Young John wasn't there, but he backed the socialist Wobblies - even though 75 Wobblies were charged with murder. Later, Metcalf remembers his dad repeatedly voting for socialist candidate Norman Thomas in presidential elections in the '30s and '40s.
"He always gave the benefit of the doubt to the working man," Metcalf said.
Later, his dad would take a more extreme turn. When Jack was a boy in the late 1930s, his father joined the Silver Shirts of America. It was a fascist group run by William Dudley Pelley, a devotee of Adolf Hitler who wanted to create a national cooperative that would function without banks, money or advertising. Like Pelley, John Metcalf also went on to write a book of spirituality, a work of fiction that glorified the Native American culture around Puget Sound. Of his dad, Jack Metcalf is blunt: "He was a wonderful father. But except for Indians, who he liked, he was a racist."
Out of this environment came a son with fiercely independent opinions that were all over the map. An arch-conservative, Jack Metcalf's main tactic in the 1968 U.S. Senate campaign was to charge that Magnuson was soft on communism. At the same time, though, he felt military enlistment should be voluntary.
Before environmentalism even existed Metcalf was a leader in protecting natural resources. But the point was to use them, not admire them from a distance.
His concern for worker rights was strong enough that last year he was the first Republican in 25 years to get the endorsement of the Boeing machinists union. Yet twice he crossed picket lines during teacher strikes in Everett, declaring that "a school isn't like some industrial plant."
Some of his quests have opened him to charges of racism. When he traveled the nation to speak against the Federal Reserve he found common cause with a number of controversial people and groups. They included the Populist Party, which had ties to the Ku Klux Klan; a California-based group called Redeem Our Country, which also published an anti-Semitic newsletter; and the Utah-based National Center for Constitutional Studies, whose founder once wrote that the "worst victims" of slavery were the white slave owners.
But most of Metcalf's struggle with race issues stemmed from his belief that the courts have granted the tribes "special rights," especially in salmon fishing. Native Americans say the term is a racist code for treating them as second-class citizens.
Metcalf denies any racist thoughts of his own, saying the beliefs were not genetically passed from father to son. Despite all the criticism heaped on him during his career, he has not uttered a disparaging word about anyone in public. Even some of his harshest critics call him "Gentleman Jack."
Many supporters say Metcalf opens himself to criticism because he is fearless and a little naive. He'll speak to any group about any of his favorite issues, and doesn't care about the consequences.
"I'm a maverick, and I always have been," he says. "I kind of liked doing it the hard way."
BACK AT HIS RETREAT on Whidbey Island, Metcalf spends his time gardening and keeping watch for those pesky rabbits. He has slowed considerably from the days when he led legislators in sprints up 262 steps to the top of the Capitol dome in Olympia. He admits he is weary of Congress and politics.
As he prepares to retire, the question is inevitable. Sure, he's a genuine Northwest character. But has his career really mattered?
It's a vexing question. He first won office in 1960 but can't point to much major legislation. He says his greatest accomplishment was helping set up a state waste-hauling and recycling plan. "As a legacy, it's kind of mundane - a garbage bill," he says. In Congress he helped establish a commission to monitor north Puget Sound. Other contributions to state policy were a shellfish-protection act and a whistle-blower system to allow state employees to report government misdeeds without fear of retaliation.
He notes with pride that he was way ahead of his time on countless issues. He opposed busing to desegregate schools, and the programs now are kaput. He touted the merits of home-schooling long before it was popular. He argued for smaller government 30 years before Republicans won control of Congress and started to make it happen.
Ironically, as some of his conservative stands have become mainstream, Metcalf has seemed to fade into the background. It's possible he was at his best when he was out there on his own.
Maybe Jack Metcalf won't be missed when he's gone. Some say his view of the world is too narrow and outdated to matter anymore.
But a lot of politics is symbols and perceptions. If you value true diversity in politics, you have to wonder: After Jack is gone, who will take his place? Who will know what it's like to live off the land? Who will know how to catch a fish? Who will speak for the hunters, the fishermen, the loggers who once ruled the Northwest woods?
Does any of this even matter anymore? Metcalf says it should, but concedes it probably doesn't.
"Things are different today," he said. "Most politicians are specialists - they know financing or they know insurance. But there aren't 10 people in the House of Representatives who know anything about fishing. There's nobody like me. I've lived the kind of life you just can't live anymore."
Maybe Metcalf's legacy is not about a particular law or policy, but his personal history, quirks and all. Ten times over four decades voters picked him over someone else; maybe they did it because he has always seemed a bit like a part of us that we aren't anymore.
Danny Westneat is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of The Seattle Times. Harley Soltes is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.